The Roots of Indie: R.E.M. – ‘Murmur’
I was a teenager working in a record store when R.E.M.‘s first album dropped. They had me at hello: That album cover looked like the deep southern woods where I lived, the kudzu choking the life out of anything that stood still too long.
“James, why are you wasting your money on that junk,” my manager asked, but I knew something good had to be lurking behind that cover.
And man, was I right. From the opening beats of ‘Radio Free Europe’ I knew that ‘Murmur’ was my album, and that R.E.M. were my band. What I didn’t realize was just how true that was. They were from just down the road a spell, from a town named Athens, Georgia, that I only knew as the place my neighbor went to college.
There was a whole scene going on down there, bands with names like Pylon and Love Tractor. There was no scene in my small southern town. If I wanted live music I had to go see whatever major label act was playing in the nearest city. That wasn’t all bad, but for every Rush that came through the region there were five Foreigners.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved every one of those shows — cool dudes striking rock god poses with their Les Pauls and their Strats, epic drum solos, front men who swore we were the best audience they’d ever seen — but it was all so disconnected from my reality.
‘Murmur’ wasn’t. I had no idea what Michael Stipe was saying most of the time, but the way he said it resonated. Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker sounded like the view outside my window. I still can’t explain why, it just did. R.E.M. felt like part of my world, not some invading spandex horde demanding to know whether I was ready to rock.
And so I played the hell out of ‘Talk About the Passion’ and ‘Catapult’ in the privacy of my own room, or blasted ‘Sitting Still’ or ‘West of the Fields’ cruising around town with my best buddy, Lee, and I wondered what other musical treasures awaited me off the beaten path. R.E.M.’s label, I.R.S. Records, seemed like a good place to start, so I picked up most anything I could find with their distinctive logo. Down the bunny hole I went: Wall of Voodoo, the English Beat, Let’s Active, the Alarm.
The strategy worked so well that I started looking for other dependable labels: SST, Rough Trade, Twin/Tone, 2 Tone. Without an internet and surrounded by cruddy radio stations, often the label was as good as it got when picking new music.
College radio stations picked up ‘Murmur’ and my favorite local band gained national recognition. The album went Top 40, and Rolling Stone magazine stuck its 1983 ‘Album of the Year’ endorsement on it.
“College radio” became a big buzz word after that. College radio existed long before ‘Murmur,’ but R.E.M.’s out of the gate success brought the major labels sniffing around. Before the year was out the band was on national television. Indie music had hit the mainstream:
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The band stuck it out on I.R.S. for four more years and four more more essential albums before moving up to the majors. I can’t remember where I read it, but at the time when asked why he signed with Warner Bros., Stipe told a reporter, “Bugs Bunny.” I knew it was the cash, but I liked the answer.
R.E.M.’s rise was so revered that coming from an indie label became a mark of credibility. Jane’s Addiction were already signed to Warner Bros. when they recorded and released their eponymous debut on Triple X Records. Guns N’ Roses went one step further and created their own fake label, Uzi Suicide, to release their indie debut even though they were already signed to Geffen.
"R.E.M.’s rise was so revered that coming from an indie label became a mark of credibility."
There is no single point of origin, no patient zero at the root of independent music. The influences that led to whatever you’re listening to right now sprawl wildly from all directions like the kudzu on the cover of ‘Murmur.’
But in the last thirty years there is no album that has done more to open doors for indie artists than R.E.M.’s debut.